Valley Forge: Once Again A Battleground, This Time Pitting History Against Development

Concern is mounting over what might happen to 78 acres of open space surrounded on three sides by Valley Forge National Historical Park. Photo of misty trees at Valley Forge by rodeomilano via flickr.

More than two centuries after General George Washington and his Continental Army somehow endured a bitterly cold and exacting winter at Valley Forge, the landscape is again in turmoil. On one side is a national historical park, one that helps preserve some of the hardship of America's birth. On the other, an organization whose questionable motives could sully that landscape.

For more than a decade the affair between Valley Forge National Historical Park and the entity that would evolve into today's American Revolution Center flickered hot and cold. In 1999 the budding romance burned brightly as Congress authorized a partnership between the National Park Service and the Valley Forge Historical Society to build a museum dedicated to the American Revolution. At the time the project was viewed as the perfect complement to the park's Welcome Center, on the south side of the Schuylkill River.

Fast forward to the present and you'll find the romance in tatters. While the Park Service still would like very much to see a museum built near the Welcome Center, the non-profit American Revolution Center (ARC), which took the museum project over from the historical society in 2002, is smitten with a 78-acre parcel on the river's north side that embraces meadows, wetlands, and forests cut by two streams. Known to locals as the Pawling Farm, the acreage also happens to be surrounded on three sides by the historical park and long has been cherished by the Park Service for addition to Valley Forge, if only it could ever afford it.

What greatly concerns the Park Service, and what has prompted the National Parks Conservation Association, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and even locally elected officials to challenge and speak out against ARC's decision to abandon its Park Service partnership in favor of the Pawling Farm, is what the non-profit could - not necessarily 'would,' but 'could' -- erect on that bucolic sweep of land. In all, they say nearly 20 acres, or roughly one-quarter of the 78, could be impacted to some degree by development.

A "Living History Overlay District" zoning ordinance that the opponents say ARC's representatives helped craft "allows a building footprint of over a half-a-million square feet. It allows an unlimited amount of sidewalks, plazas, and pervious paving, including parking lots," says Barbara Pollarine, the historical park's deputy superintendent.

"It allows a hotel and unlimited ancillary uses, which will be built whether or not a museum ever is constructed. So, (ARC) may be successful, and I hope that they are in raising the money to build the museum," she adds, "but if they were not, if the museum were never built, the ordinance allows all these commercial uses to be built.”

Earlier this month the Park Service retirees called on top Interior Department and Park Service officials to speak out against the project, which has taken on decidedly commercial overtones after being promoted as "the first museum dedicated to interpreting, honoring and celebrating the complete story of the entire American Revolution."

According to the retirees, the complex would contain not just a museum, but also a hotel, tavern, restaurant, campground, and convention center. Additionally, they say it would be built on a site that historians say was critical to the Continental Army's successful winter encampment of 1777-1778.

"There was no battle at Valley Forge when Washington and his men survived the winter of 1777, but this historic site now is under siege today by an organization operating with what appears to be complete disregard for the fact that this is land inside part of the National Park System," says Bill Wade, chairman of the coalition's executive council. "The ARC, headed by Mr. Tom Daly, seems intent on using the proposed complex to hijack visitors from the park and make them paying customers for private enterprise.

"The development would strain the natural resources of the surrounding area and threaten potential cultural resources on the historic grounds planned for the development. It also would 'short-circuit' the park's extremely well-researched educational program for visitors, which is designed to begin at the park's Welcome Center and progress through a very well-structured experience as visitors move through the current park."

ARC officials are incensed by the opposition that has mounted to their plans and are adamant that their admirable intentions to raise the nation's first museum to the Revolutionary War are being greatly misconstrued.

“There’s no campground. The restaurants will be within the museum, as with most museums. There is an education conference center that may have some number of rooms associated with it," says ZeeAnn Mason, a senior vice president for external affairs with ARC. "I think there is a lot of confusion by people that maybe don’t understand ordinances. This is an overlay ordinance that is connected to four underlying ordinances. It’s very complicated stuff. But what the ordinance allows, and what our plans are, as with any ordinance, are two different things.”

Perhaps, but ARC's role in drafting the overlay ordinance, which Valley Forge officials have combed through and cited questionable wording (see attached), has generated numerous questions about the group's bottom-line motivation.

"The building plan that is available for public review shows less than 2 acres of land will have building footprints on it," says Ms. Mason. "That’s because the museum is 50 percent underground. We have gone to extensive lengths to be sensitive, from a sustainability standpoint, with the building program and the landscape program. We’re very, very proud of our work."

Not everyone shares that pride, however.

"They fought very hard to get an ordinance passed that allowed them to do all of the things (hotel, restaurant, campground, museum) you just described," Cinda Waldbuesser, the Pennsylvania program manager for the NPCA, tells me. "And throughout the summer at all the public hearings when they were talking about their plans, they talked the entire time about lodgings, conference center, campgrounds, etc., etc., etc.

"What they’re now saying they’re doing and what they’re actually going to do may be two very different things. Our concern is what is legally allowed under the ordinance," adds Ms. Waldbuesser. "And under the ordinance, there could be massive development. I should point out, last summer when they were negotiating with the township they were asked to sign a conservation covenant that would have limited their development to 15 percent of the parcel, and they said they would sign it all summer, and then at the very last minute said they would not sign it."

So concerned are Valley Forge officials that they've added a briefing statement on the controversy to the park's web site (and attached below). In that document park officials note the historical nature of the Pawling Farm, saying "it was the site of the newly organized Commissary function that saved the Continental Army from starvation; and it was the ultimate site of the encampment itself before the army marched on to victory at Monmouth."

Furthermore, the Park Service, which once held an interest in buying the 78 acres but later turned that interest over to ARC with the understanding the non-profit would build only a museum and preserve the rest, points out its concerns with ARC's proposal.

"After NPS ceded its interest in the purchase contract to ARC, ARC changed its concept from that of a museum surrounded by open space to a concept of a museum with extensive commercial development," reads the document. "The impacts to the site will be adverse -- the patches of land that are not built on will have little value as open space for environmental and habitat purposes, public recreational purposes, or as a historic landscape.

"The impacts to the park also will be adverse. The park surrounds this site on three of the four sides. Two streams run through the site and feed park wetlands that lie along the Schuylkill river. The tall buildings and large parking lots that would be permitted under the zoning ordinance will be visible from within the park, both on the north and the south sides of the river. The ordinance provides no buffering of building, parking, and sidewalk lights, which also will be visible from within the park."

History, they say, repeats itself, and so it should come as no surprise that this situation is eerily similar to one in 2002 when Toll Brothers, at the time the largest builder of luxury homes in the nation, planned to build 62 homes on another patch of privately owned land located within the park's boundaries. That project got as far as bearing a name, "Valley Forge Overlook," before public outcry led the developer to sell the land back to the federal government, at a profit of roughly $4 million.

Back at Valley Forge today, Deputy Superintendent Pollarine understands the frustrations that prompted ARC to exit its partnership with the Park Service in 2005.

"It’s not easy to work with our bureaucracy. It’s not. It’s a ponderous, long process, and I think they became very frustrated with the whole process. That would be a legitimate thing," she said. "The government is not the easiest to create a partnership with, especially when, at the time that it was being proposed and the way it was planned in the park, it was about a 90,000-square-foot museum. … That’s not customarily the kind of building the Park Service builds. So we had our own challenges, even though we who worked on it thought it was the right idea.

"There was a lot of consternation within the Park Service hierarchy over how we could support such a structure. What if it’s not financially sustainable and the Park Service has to take it on? All of those kinds of questions, which are legitimate questions, and I think it finally kind of reached an impasse in 2005 and the American Revolution Center came in and said in October of 2005 they didn’t want to continue the partnership. They terminated the partnership in writing, citing the difficulty of working within all of these processes, which is unfortunate."

In 2006 ARC officials wanted to reconcile with the Park Service, which the agency was willing to do. But early in 2007 the agreement was severed once again. In June of that year, according to the Park Service, ARC proposed the overlay ordinance for the Pawling Farm. On September 6 that ordinance was approved, and the very next day ARC bought the property, the Park Service says.

One of the intricacies of this conflict is that ARC could, if it doesn't get what it wants, sell the land to the highest bidder. Since the property already is zoned for residential, that means nearly 300 homes could be built there.

"The sad thing is, if we’re prevented from going forward, this land will be put on the block and the highest commercial bidder will buy it," says Ms. Mason. "As the township commissioners said when they passed the ordinance, they’re getting calls all the time and people sure are buying dirt. They may not be buying homes right now, but this would be a very attractive place for nice little one-acre suburban homes.”

“That’s always a chance," agrees the NPCA's Ms. Waldbuesser. "There is also the opportunity to protect the land and not have it become a subdivision. It’s really not an either or.”

While Park Service Director Mary Bomar, who once was the regional director for the Park Service's Northeast Region Office that counts Valley Forge among its parks, has not publicly commented on the longstanding dispute, Deputy Superintendent Pollarine isn't surprised.

"I'm sure that this is not the only controversy brewing in the Park Service if you look around," she says. "Try snowmobiles in Yellowstone. I'm certain that she is aware of this and concerned about it."

Back at the retirees coalition, though, Mr. Wade fears politics are muzzling agency officials in Washington. In calling on DOI and NPS officials to stand up against the current proposal as being "completely inconsistent with the mission of the NPS," the coalition contends political pressure is keeping them mute.

If the current proposal goes forward, says Mr. Wade, it will in effect "create a new, private entrance to the park, lure visitors to the development in order to present ARC's version of the history of the area and collect the revenue from their visitors."

"Valley Forge National Historical Park belongs to all Americans. It is not Tom Daly's park. It is not the Lower Providence Township's park. They evidently think of Valley Forge as a local park, rather than as a component of a National Park System that is a cumulative expression of a single national heritage, for the common benefit of all the people of the United States, as the United States Congress intended it to be when it established it as a National Historical Park in 1976," he adds. "People from New York, North Dakota and Nevada should be disgusted by those who would undertake or support actions that would diminish the values of this American icon in favor of narrow self-interests."

Despite his strong objections, Ms. Mason would be happy to give Mr. Wade a personal briefing on ARC's plans and intentions.

"We have contributed more financially to Valley Forge Park than any other private entity, putting in over $1 million of cash to completely redo the welcome center in 2003. So, we’ve put our money where our mouth is," she says. "We have a very exciting, robust plan. We are very eager to work with the park to create a seamless, day-long experience that will enhance people’s understanding of this important period of our nation’s history, this defining moment in who we are as Americans, which continues to unite us as a nation.

"We have the (museum) collection, we have incredible talent, we want to continue to be a good friend and neighbor of Valley Forge and it’s certainly distressing to read the kinds of accusations that are so ill-informed," continues Ms. Mason. "We would love to give Mr. Wade a briefing. I think, without exception, when people come down and really take a look at what we’re doing, they leave very excited about our plans.”

What now? The Lower Providence Township planning commission is scheduled to host a public meeting on April 23 to review ARC's development proposal.

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VAFO-ARC Briefing Statement.pdf16.75 KB
VAFO-ARC Implications.doc134.5 KB

Comments

The development plans horrify me--what can an average citizen like me do to stop this?

This development plan sounds like all the rest of the plans developers excel in as flim flam to make a buck. The museum sounds like a good idea, as education is a major part of creating the future, but the rest of it feels like a scam.

Dear Anonymous:

Unfortunately, the "educational" lesson by placing a museum on the undeveloped land -- inside the park boundary -- that they want to use will totally obscure George Washington's tactical brilliance as a General. Right now, with the land undeveloped, the visitor has the opportunity to understand the constant tension Washington kept the British generals in: by being right next to the River, but almost just within reach of British troops and logistics, Washington could always move just across the river to frustrate any British advance, and protect his own supplies at the same time. Washington did the same thing in Morristown, New Jersey when the British took New York.

The only education opportunity for this proposal would be to combine the national park service collection with the ARC collection, and present them to the public TOGETHER in the ALREADY developed area SOUTH of the river. Building it on the north side would be a descration of the meaning of Valley Forge. Combined on the south, these two collections would be one of the largest collection of cultural materials from the American Revolution. Combined on the south of the river, the public would not be confused about how and where to access the park and learn the story of Valley Forge and the creation of the American Army.